Editorial — 22 December 2018
April 10 – better than bread and circus

Bread and circuses — It means distracting people with food and entertainment (bread and circuses/popcorn and movies) so they won’t notice the things that are really wrong… The term comes from the work of the Roman satirist Juvenal (ca. A.D. 60-140), who wrote: Duas tantum res anxius optat/Panem et circenses. (The people) long eagerly for two things: bread and circuses.”  (From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions by Elizabeth Webber and Mike Feinsilber)

The Statistics Institute of Belize (SIB) is to be commended for their consistency in producing data related to the state of our economy. The data they produce sometimes needs explanatory notes, but that doesn’t negate the effort. Every month, and quarterly, and yearly, we are informed about the performances of our primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors. The SIB is far and away the most consistent institution in Belize reporting on the activities in their area of work. Other organizations in our country should recognize their responsibility to Belizeans and follow the lead of the SIB.

Of recent, the SIB has very often been bearing bad news. They are not to be blamed. It’s not for “lack of trying” to find the silver lining in our declining economy. Tourism, they say, has been producing good numbers. The SIB reports show that new hotel rooms are being built, airports are being renovated or being constructed, and tourist arrivals are on the rise. But it’s definitely not the same optimism on the ground, especially in the world of small Belizean entrepreneurs. They keep saying they are losing share in the industry, and they have the numbers to prove it.

We are told that our economy is expanding, and a prime example, a poster child of Belizean productivity, is alcoholic beverages. Unfortunately, we are not a major exporter of spirituous beverages, far from it.

Data from the OEC (Observatory of Economic Complexity) at atlas.media.mit.edu reveals that Belize exported $858,000 worth of beer in 2016, mostly to St. Vincent and the Grenadines (74%) (thanks for drinking Belikin Beer); and we exported $1.97million in hard liquor in 2016, mostly to the USA (62%) (thanks for drinking rum from Belize).

The OEC said that “during the last five years the exports of Belize have decreased at an annualized rate of -12.8%, from $870M in 2011 to $439M in 2016.” Therein is Belize’s dismal story. When it comes to our productive sector, the SIB really must feel like a broken record. Every month, every quarter, every year, it’s the same story – imports UP, exports DOWN.

In a country where the economic system leans toward capitalism, and there is no sufficient welfare system, bad news on the macroeconomy is horrible news on the ground where the masses live. We are living in a negative economic climate — our economy is moving at a snail’s pace, limping along. Hope is not alive.

There are not enough jobs in the economy and there are not enough well-remunerated jobs in our economy. Social scientists tell us that when there are not enough good jobs in a country, there is great unrest among the masses. A bad economy is always accompanied by social ills, uncivilized behaviors. We have the full unsavory complement – murder, robberies, violence, perpetrated on the vulnerable.

It’s really discouraging. The government has no answer. We get a sense that our government would rather that many of us weren’t here. We get a sense that when a young, healthy Belizean falls victim to gun violence or a road traffic accident, our leaders breathe a sigh of relief — because there is one less person to worry about finding a job for. Fu real.

The present government is far from being entirely responsible for the troubles in citrus and shrimp. Those vital industries are beset by diseases and the best of responses won’t lead to recovery overnight. In situations like these all governments can do is provide funding for the necessary research, and subsidies so farmers don’t abandon their businesses. In the cases of oil, whose yields have plummeted, and sugar, the money value of which has fallen, government is hard-pressed to find solutions.

It isn’t “unfair” for people to clamor for a change of leadership when leadership is not entirely to blame for the nation’s failures. Sometimes a change of faces is necessary. In the case of our present leadership, they also lose points for their investment of never-before-seen-in-Belize millions in oil windfall and PetroCaribe dollars.

The facts bear out that our present leadership invested minimally in drainage, irrigation, and solid macadamized roads for farmers; minimally in retooling our youth and the displaced; and minimally in the arts. And it invested nothing in the development of small factories so we don’t have to buy ALL our finished goods from abroad.

There is a consequence for these poor investments.  A lot of us have been left behind. This Belize has some bright, new infrastructure, for the few who are making it to stare at and say our country is getting as pretty as the cities we see on television, and for the many to stare at while we are feverish from the pain in our underfed bellies.

Economically, we are not living in the best of times. There is a lot of stress on the ground. In stressful times like these, our government should be scrambling to get through the days. In times like these, apart from the usual stop-gap measures, there should be games of bread and circus, distractions to keep the people from focusing too much on their pain.

In Belize, however, the government sails on from day to day almost as if the people are enjoying times of perfect contentment. And that is all to do with an appointment next year, on April 10. It is better than any bread and circus.

April 10 poses an existential question, and so it must be carefully studied. When the main opposition party suggested to the government that they consider postponing the date, so that Belizeans could have more time to ruminate on the monumental decision and to bring in more Belizeans living abroad onto the voting list so they can participate in the referendum, the leader of the country didn’t even pause to consider it. That could be because he and his friends are absolutely certain about the path on which they are traveling. More likely, it has to do with the political bonanza.

It’s good to pay attention to the past. We have the hair from the “horse tail” to prove that our governments will exploit every opportunity to win/consolidate power. April 10 is just too good for the narrow end of political gain to pass up.

It is not far-fetched that the government might consider changing the appointment date sometime down the road. But right now, in a country where the waters should be turbulent, the government is sailing on a fair wind. It will be so for another two months at least. As long as all mature eyes are focused on April 10, our leaders have the escape valve to ease the pain in the system.

Merry Krismos, Belize

The Christmas season is the most wonderful time in the western world, for most. In the old days in Belize, the celebration of the birth of Jesus was especially festive because it was flavored with the homecoming of our forefathers who were on a break from long months da mahogany an chicle bush.

In that beautiful spirit we say: Merry Krismos — may every home in Belize have a ham and turkey, a batl pahn table, black cake and rum popo for the gentle folk, and a special gift for the little ones.

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Deshawn Swasey

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